Differential privacy for dummies

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2021-08-18 13:30:10

Technology allows companies to collect more data and with more detail about their users than ever before. Sometimes that data is sold to third parties, other times it’s used to improve products and services.

In order to protect users’ privacy, anonymization techniques can be used to strip away any piece of personally identifiable data and let analysts access only what’s strictly necessary. As the Netflix competition in 2007 has shown though, that can go awry. The richness of data allows to identify users through a sometimes surprising combination of variables like the dates on which an individual watched certain movies. A simple join between an anonymized datasets and one of many publicly available, non-anonymized ones, can re-identify anonymized data.

Aggregated data is not much safer either under some circumstances! For example, say we have two summary statistics: one is the number of users, including Frank, that watch one movie per day and the other is the number of users, without Frank, that watch one movie per day. Then, by comparing the counts, we could tell if Frank watches one movie per day.

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